Bird watching isn’t on the top of everyone’s “things to do” list, but just mention puffins and people get either cutesy or just downright excited.
Tufted puffins, with their stylish little Grandpa Munster hairdos and red-orange beaks and feet, are a colorful delight to see – but they can be hard to find.
Good thing the Port Townsend Marine Science Center takes visitors and puffin lovers on a cruise around Protection Island at the mouth of Discovery Bay in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The cruises are offered Saturdays into August.
Celebrating 25 years of coastal education and conservation, the science center is offering cruises that give people the chance to learn about puffins and see them in their natural habitat along with seals and other wildlife.
Protection Island, a natural wildlife refuge, is 364 acres. It’s closed to the public. The only way to get there is by private boat or a chartered cruise.
We climbed aboard our puffin cruise at Hudson Point Marina in Port Townsend just before 6 p.m. on a recent Saturday. The 65-foot Glacier Spirit was full and people cozied up around tables.
On the ride out to Protection Island our guides kept us informed of what we might see – various loons and grebes – and told us what to look for and where we might spot puffins.
The ride was choppy that evening under a brilliant blue sky.
Out past Discovery Bay the boat began to slow down. It was here we heard the first cry: “Puffin! Puffin!”
Bird lovers sat up, stood up, and came out on deck to look at three little puffins bobbing around in the water about 200 feet from the boat. These bird enthusiasts came well-equipped with high-powered binoculars and long-lens cameras, and a closer look at the puffins showed their little feet furiously paddling away.
About 70 percent of seabirds in the Puget Sound and Strait of Juan de Fuca area nest on Protection Island. It has one of the largest groups of rhinoceros auklet in the world, and some were out that night.
Next up to view was a long line of harbor seals resting on the shoreline of Protection Island. In this world without people – except one man who acts as a caretaker – a bald eagle soared above the seals, creating a peaceful picture and a beautiful snapshot.
On the tip of the shore lay a 14-foot elephant seal that has been coming to Protection Island for three years. Guides can spot the creature by a huge scar on his shoulder.
Protection Island looks barren and yellowed, but is full of life. The deer spotted on one side of the island swam there from the mainland. Harlequin ducks shimmy and shake on rocks by the sea.
This natural habitat came about because of two women: Eleanor Stopps and the late Zella Schultz.
Schultz, an artist and wildlife biologist, and Stopps, founder of Admiralty Audubon, worked together learning about the birds and wildlife on Protection Island. They both shared the same goal: to see that the island would be protected for its feathery inhabitants.
When Schultz died in 1974, the Nature Conservancy bought part of the island from a developer who had already begun work on the island, putting auklets at risk. The Nature Conservancy sold the land to the Washington State Game Department and the 48 acres was named The Zella M. Schultz Seabird Sanctuary.
Stopps moved closer to Protection Island from Seattle and published a book on seagulls. She also began an Adopt a Seabird program, and with the money she raised, bought lots on Protection Island.
Stopps pressed on, enlisting people to lobby for the island and write letters in support of a land for the birds. On Oct. 15, 1982, her efforts were rewarded when Protection Island was made a National Wildlife Refuge.
Stopps was aboard the Glacier Spirit on our trip. When the boat reached Protection Island she took the microphone and told visitors a little about why she did what she did.
A few more puffins were out for viewing before our boat headed back to Port Townsend. The boat reaches Protection Island usually about the time of the evening when the birds are headed back to the island with food. It’s not unusual to see puffins with two or three fish hanging from their big colorful beaks.
The puffins might be on their way to their burrows in the cliffs where one or two chicks are waiting for supper.
Christina Harper is a freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.